How to Buy a Used Gun: Are Used Guns Safe?

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Last Updated on March 31, 2021.
How to Buy a Used Gun Are Used Guns Safe

Many gun owners are on a budget and need to be economical in their firearms purchases. Used guns offer the budget-conscious gun owner a plethora of less-expensive firearms to choose from. You’re also likely to find a few weapons that are no longer manufactured.

If you’re in the market for a firearm, you may want to know how to buy a used gun and when used guns are safe. Used guns are common in gun stores — online and in-person — and at gun shows.

The used-gun market provides a wide range of benefits to the first-time or experienced gun owner. You can find everything from cheap guns to discontinued, but highly sought-after gems.


Buying Used Guns

FFL or Private Sale

You can buy used firearms in two different ways.

First, you can purchase a used firearm from a gun store — a federal firearms licensee (FFL). The procedure is the same for buying a new gun. You’ll need to show proof of ID, not be a prohibited person, be at least 18 years of age for long guns, and 21 years of age for handguns. 

You’ll fill out a Firearms Transaction Record (ATF Form 4473) and complete the NICS background check. Once the NICS staff informs the gun store to proceed with the transaction, you can take your new (or used) gun home

The second method is through a private sale. According to the ATF, record-free private firearms sales between non-prohibited residents of the same state are legal. They may, however, be further regulated at the state or local level. You’ll only need federal paperwork if you’re buying a Title II (i.e., NFA-regulated) weapon, such as a short-barreled rifle or machine gun. 

Take Precautions

If you arrange to meet a private seller, you should be able to examine the firearm thoroughly before completing the transaction. Take reasonable precautions when arranging to meet an online private seller in person. Meet in a public place, such as a parking lot, during the day. If you can, take someone with you or notify someone of your whereabouts.

A used firearm is not necessarily more or less safe than a brand-new specimen. It depends on several factors. 

The Gun Show

Guns shows are as American as baseball and apple pie. The number of duds and gems you’re likely to encounter can be in the hundreds or thousands.

When searching the tables of licensees and private sellers, never buy a used gun without examining it first. Consult a resource that you can defer to regarding used prices, depending on condition. The Blue Book of Gun Values is a popular choice. 

Firearms Safety

Always ask permission before handling a firearm at a gun store or gun show. Before you finalize a purchase, thoroughly inspect the firearm.

Your observance of firearms safety is critical. When handling a firearm, always ensure that you follow the four rules:

  1. All guns are always loaded. Even if they are not, treat them as if they are.
  2. Never let the muzzle cover anything that you are not prepared to destroy.
  3. Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on the target.
  4. Be aware of your target and what is behind it.

Always check the chamber of a firearm that you’re handling before you do anything else. This means removing the magazine, if there is one, and opening the breech by retracting the slide, charging handle, or fore-end. 

Visually inspect the chamber for a cartridge. If you’re inspecting the weapon in low light and can’t confirm by sight, it’s customary to insert your little finger into the chamber (if possible). This allows for a tactile confirmation of the status.  


Inspection Criteria and Function Checks

Inspect the external appearance

Read the manufacturer, model, caliber, serial number, and any other relevant information on the slide, frame, or receiver. This information should be intact and consistent. If there are signs that any of these roll marks or engravings have been altered or defaced, decline to do business.  

Examine the frame for holster wear, scratches, rust, and pitting. Remember: a firearm may cycle flawlessly despite a rugged or well-worn appearance. This isn’t necessarily an indicator that the weapon’s performance may suffer. The sights, screws, and pins should be properly attached. Wipe your fingerprints from any surfaces you’ve touched with your bare hands if you decline to buy the gun from a private seller.

Retract the slide (or charging handle to open the bolt)

This allows you to test how tight or loose the moving parts are. You should not encounter binding or an action that is too sloppy. 

Manipulate the controls

You’ll need to manipulate some of the controls to clear the weapon anyway, such as slide stops, bolt catches, manual safeties/decocking levers, grip safeties, and selectors. If the weapon is a double-barreled shotgun, rotate the opening lever. 

Every one of these controls must function flawlessly. If the safety/fire selector does not work, the weapon is potentially unsafe. If it’s a pistol or revolver with an external hammer, cock the hammer and apply forward pressure against it. If it falls or moves forward, this is a sign the mechanism is damaged and the gun is unsafe

Disassemble the weapon

As with handling, ask the owner’s permission before attempting disassembly of a firearm. If you don’t know how to disassemble the weapon, ask the gun store clerk or owner to show you

If either person refuses, politely decline to buy it. There is no reason for either party not to demonstrate how to disassemble the gun or refuse to do it themselves. You need to see the inside of the weapon to ensure that there’s no hidden damage or rust and that all necessary components are present. 

Inspect the barrel

With the action or cylinder open, check the barrel and the bore for signs of rust, pitting, irregularities in the rifling pattern, cracks, and other defects. If you don’t have access to a bore light, hold the open action to a light source and examine the bore

Look over the muzzle and the chamber. Oil and grease can conceal defects and rust. If the barrel is heavily oiled, ask the seller to let you clean it or clean it for you. A cotton patch or mop should do the trick.


What about Revolvers?

Inspect a revolver carefully. To unload a swing-out cylinder revolver, press the cylinder latch forward or pull it rearward with your thumb. The cylinder will unlock from the frame, allowing you to swing it out to the side.

Check the timing of the cylinder — i.e., how precisely it aligns with the barrel and indexes when you squeeze the trigger. 

When closing the cylinder, press the cylinder into the frame carefully. Don’t snap or “flick” it shut. This can bend the crane. 

Examine the forcing cone. This is the tapered part that guides the bullet from the cylinder into the barrel and is located at the breech end. If the cylinder is not correctly aligned with the barrel, the bullet may strike the forcing cone, deforming it.


The Wrap Up

Buying used guns can provide you with access to rare and discontinued weapons and bargains. Used guns can be, and often are, perfectly safe to buy.

But you need to be vigilant. You should inspect a used firearm thoroughly for signs of abuse, wear, and damage. External signs of wear may not affect the gun’s function. 

If you take the time to carefully inspect used firearms, you can find some excellent deals. You may also find some rare collectibles as well.